Category Archives: organic vegetables

Tokyo Izakaya: My Favourite Counter

Teiji Nakamura may not be a name many are familiar with, but you most certainly should be aware of the fine establishments of this renowned restaurateur. When an occasion calls for good food and sake with a touch of sophistication, his flagship izakaya, Namikibashi Namamura, and its equally impressive sister shop, KAN, have long been my destinations of choice. However, since the departure of KAN’s talented head chef, Sasaki-san, I have been looking for a new shop to call home. Thankfully, I didn’t have to search far as a prodigy of Nakamura, Kotaro Hayashi, had opened at shop which seamlessly filled the void.
Opening last year to much fanfare from the local foodie community and immediately drew praise from such luminaries as the izakaya guru Kazuhiko Ota, who is a regular. But, as with any place in Tokyo that has a buzz about it, getting a reservation was – and still is – frustratingly difficult. Despite my jouren-san (regular customer) status, I couldn’t get a reservation there until early this year, and even then I had to book three weeks in advance!
Located behind the Ceralean Tower Hotel, in the tangled backstreets of Sakuragaoka, Kotaro-san’s shop has the trademark Nakamura look: stylish, contemporary ambiance combined with a wabi-sabi aesthetic. The narrow shop is dominated by an elegant wooden counter that encloses the focal point of the space – an immaculate kitchen, with a few table seats at the rear for groups of four. Because of its small dimensions, it seats only 22 diners, the shop immediately feels cozy and intimate.

Before opening his own izakaya, Hayashi-san rose through the ranks of Nakamura’s establishments; beginning at Playground, in Shimokitazawa, before going on to head the kitchen at KAN for 10 years.

The influence is immediately noticeable on the menu, with many classic ‘Nakamura’ dishes making an appearance. What is also evident is that Hayashi-san pays close attention to seasonal ingredients, utilising produce from well-sourced regional purveyors and organic farmers. Along with its rustic washoku fare there are a variety of small plates of umami packed otsumami that pair nicely with sake.

On a late summer visit, a refreshing glass of French sauvignon blanc was the call of the day – I forget what it was, but it sure hit the spot. We settled into our seats and nimbled on a tasty otoshi of shintorisai and green soybean ohitashi, garnished with katsuobushi.
Sake lovers will take comfort in the staff’s thoughtful selection of jizake a rarity in Shibuya. They stock a variety of sake from 8 well-regarded kura: the first page of the menu lists lighter varieties; the second, more full-bodied sakes, with plenty of yamahai for those that like a more robust style.

 

I am always delighted to find offerings from Shizuoka on a sake list, and even more so when it’s Kikuyoi; a kura which consistently produces excellent sake. We started with an old favourite, the Kikuyoi Tokubetsu Junmai (喜久醉 特別純米 – Yamada Nishiki 60%). This slightly golden hued sake has a fruity, pineapple aroma and a mellow, ricey junmai flavour. Dry and finely textured, this sake makes you want to go back for more.

Watching Hayashi-san’s expert and rhymic knife skills was almost as enjoyable as eating the pretty sashimi moriawase he placed before us.

Not only is the sashimi of very good quality, it is also made with sustainable fish. From front left: shime-aji (white trevally), katsuo (skipjack tuna), shime-saba (cured makerel), sanma (Pacific saury) and shako. The soft purple-hued shako (Mantis shrimp) is a violent little crustacean which comes into season around summer. Its slightly grainy texture really sings with a spritz of fresh citrus.

A ‘Nakamura’ classic: Creamy, silken yakko (fresh tofu) dressed with a warm sesame soy sauce, topped with sauteed leeks, jako (fried baby sardines) and a chiffonade of katsuobushi. The soft, creamy tofu is perfectly complemented by the salty and crunchy topping. This is a dish which could certainly convert even the most ardent carnivore to the joys of the humble bean curd.
Another consistently good sake that works well with summer seafood is the Ishizuchi Junmai Ginjo Green Label Funeshibori (石鎚純米吟醸緑ラベル槽搾り- Yamada Nishiki 50%), from Ehime. It’s lightly fragranced, with a faint sweetness that is balanced out with mineral notes and a pleasant acidity. Crisp and refreshing like pure spring water.
With the mercury still in the 30’s, I had a craving for a bright and clean salad to combat my summer lethargy. Hayashi-san was sympathetic to my plight and generously offered to make us something off menu, rustling up a vibrant salad of fresh, organic aubergine, new season tomato and Tokyo bekana (a  small Chinese cabbage) with a piquant shiso and sesame dressing. Delicious and revitalising – he read me perfectly.
Sanma is a peak this time of year, and is ubiquitous on menus. A relation of mackerel, this humble and inexpensive fish needs little embellishment; salted and charcoal grilled (shioyaki), and a simple garnish of grated daikon seasoned with soy sauce and a splash of fresh sudachi lime is the best way to enjoy its richly flavoured flesh.
Impressed by the summer menu, I immediately re-booked for autumn; a time when a cornucopia of harvest produce is available and fish, plumped up with fat after their long swim down from the cold waters of the far north, return to the Japanese archipelago in abundance. It’s my favourite season for food.
Anago (sea eel), duck,  kaki (oysters) and buri (yellowtail) feature heavily on the autumn menu, but what I was most excited about was the return of ankimo (monkfish liver). Anyone who knows me, will be well aware that the start of autumn heralds the beginning of my annual ankimo binge… and if Hayashi-san’s homemade ankimo ponzu was anything to go by, it was going to be a dangerously delicious season.
The clean and dry flavour of Taka’s Tokubetsu Junmai (貴 特別純米長州の純米酒 -Yamada Nishiki/Hattan Nishiki 60%), from Yamaguchi, works well with the richer flavours of autumn food. It has an appealing fruity fragrance, with mellow sweetness and gentle acidity – very quaffable.
Another ‘Nakamura’ classic: potato salad. A simple dish elevated to another level with the addition of a perfectly cooked smoked egg and goma dressing.
Shichihonyari is made by one of Japan’s oldest breweries, Tomita Shuzo. Founded in the 1540’s, near the shores of Lake Biwa, the history of this tiny kura is as compelling as the well-crafted sake they produce. 15th generation brewer, Yasunobu Tomita, may be young and worldly, but he also has the wisdom to continue to produce sake in accordance with the philosophy and traditional techniques of his forefathers. Shichihonyari Junmai Ginjo Namagenshu (七本槍 純米吟醸 垂れ口直汲み 生原酒 – Tamasakae 55%), made with Shiga’s native Tamasakae rice that is pressed using a traditional wooden fune, embodies the taste and artisan craftmenship of this grand old kura. It has an appley ginjo fragrance, with a mellow flavour that finishes crisply, leaving your palate refreshed for another sip. Divine!
The penultimate dish was a hearty buri, tofu agedashi and kinoko ankage, that Hayashi-san divided into individual portions for my companion and me. Ankage is a thick, clear sauce made with kuzu (arrowroot) flour, so it has the slightly neba-neba consistency that my Japanese friends adore…and I struggle with. The buri was buttery; the tofu soft and pillowy, and the mild dashi flavour of the sauce was nicely enlivened by the grated daikon and dusting of yuzu zest. I really wanted to enjoy it, but that gooey texture puts me off every time.
While my friend greedily finished off my bowl, I sort sustenance in a tokkuri of Souken Tokubetsu Junmai (宗玄 特別純米 純粋無垢 – Yamada Nishiki 55%), from Ishikawa. Elegantly fragranced and a clean mouthfeel, with plenty of flavour and excellent balance.
Make sure to leave room for the bukakke udon which Hayashi-san makes by hand each day. It’s a little nod to his Kagawa roots.

Repeat visits over the past 12 months have left me in no doubt that the team here are on top of their game. Their passion and knowledge of seasonal produce is evident in the consistently good food and sake they showcase each month. But what I enjoy most about Hayashi-san’s shop is that it hits just the right balance between casual and sophisticated dining. It’s a place conducive to conversation over plates of satisfying food, and the clinking of ochoko with good friends.

[A plea to foreign visitors: Please be mindful that this is a busy restaurant. If you are not proficient in Japanese, then out of respect for the staff, please consider going with a Japanese speaking friend, or booking at the more English friendly Nakamura]

 

Tokyo Food: Du Barry, Ikejiro-Ohashi – デュ バリー, 池尻大橋

Du Barry. The name immediately inspires images of French history’s most notorious trollop, Madame du Barry. A woman of humble beginnings who brazenly ascended French society, right into the boudoir of the Sun King, Louis XIV. In the spirit of aging disgracefully, a restaurant named in honour such a licentious lady seemed a fitting choice for this year’s birthday festivities. 
Located in the well-heeled residential neighbourhood of Ikejiri-Okejiri, Du Barry opened two years ago at the height of the Neo-bistrot boom. A sophisticated yet affordable restaurant, serving a modern take on regional French cuisine, in a space best described as contemporary Tokyo chic, Du Barry is a welcome relief to the chintzy accoutrements and overblown prices that one so often associates with French dining experiences in Japan.
The kitchen is headed by Katsuyoshi Yamada, a young chef who earned his stripes in Michelin ranked French restaurants such as the two-starred Feu, in Aoyama. His menu is made up of standard bistrot dishes reinterpreted with Japanese flavours and local organic produce. While it is possible to order a la carte, most – us included – opt for the 6 course prix-fix menu, which at ¥4,200 is very good value for money.

Homemade bread and anchovy stuffed olives gave us something to nibble on as we perused the wine list, which was comprised of fairly young vintage varieties from across France and… my homeland, Nouvelle Zelande – quelle surprise!

We toasted with a bottle of Petit Coteau Vouvray lesTuffières Methode Traditionalle – bubbles on a beggar’s budget. 

Apparently, cauliflower was once all the rage at the court of Louis XIV – who knew? Du Barry pays homage to this humble brassica’s regal past by featuring it in various forms at the outset of each meal. We started with an amuse of the King’s preferred preparation: cooked in butter with a liberal sprinkling of nutmeg. 

My friends know me well. This year’s treats included a stinky wheel of Burgundian Vieux Chambolle (similar to an epoisse), and a sliver of Roquefort Papillion, from the excellent Tokyo fromagier, Fermier, plus wine from one of my favourite New Zealand wineries, Ata Rangi. Cheers my dears!

We progressed onto a carpaccio de poisson et d’aubergine parfumé au safran, which I paired with a bottle of Lawson’s Dry Hills Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2010 – and subsequently failed to document. The madai was beautifully soft, without even the smallest trace of connective tissue. The flavours and textures of the dish all worked well together. Yummo!

The next course on the menu was a salmon mousse gateau layered with Tasmanian smoked salmon and basil vinaigrette, however I was able to negotiate substituting this for their signature dish of shirako meunière and brandade from the à la carte menu. Both were decadently rich and well complemented by the dry, refreshing Hugel Gentel 2009 we drank with it.
We followed the Hugel with another Alsace wine, this time a bottle of 2008 Pinot Blanc by Pierre Frick, an Alsatian winemaker who is one of the pioneers of bio-dynamic wine in France. He is also well-known for his virulent attacks on GM crops This aromatic wine, which is vinified without sulphur, was notable for its lovely colour and pleasant stone fruit notes. 

The fourth course dishes of gratin dauphinoise and salade de légumes chaud (grilled seasonal vegetables), were effectively the sides to our main course which was served at the same time. Both were prepared with liberal amounts of butter. Well, if it ain’t artery-clogging, it ain’t French.


The poisson du jour was a pavé of Oita saba (mackerel) in a red peppercorn and balsamic reduction. Perfectly cooked, but could have done with more sauce. 

My companions choose to get their protein in the form of a warming dish of veal cheeks slowly braised in marsala sauce. The meat was so tender that it fell apart with the touch of your fork; no knife required.

The kitchen, once again, obliged my request for an off menu item: a trio of aoi ringo (despite the name is actually a green apple), mango and strawberry sorbet. I know that may seem like the most unlikely choice of birthday ‘cakes’, but for me the clean and refreshing flavours of sorbet are the perfect way to end a rich and buttery meal.

The rest of the table oohed and ahhed over their matcha and adzuki bean mille-feuille with vanilla cream.

A light and fluffy creme D’Anjou, served with our choice of coffee or blended tea, rounded out the meal. 
Well feted and well fed. Overall, my impression of Du Barry is good food and great service, all at a very decent price. Its stylish yet thoroughly casual atmosphere lends itself perfectly to a relaxed weeknight dinner with friends. 


I look forward to dealing with the challenges of the year ahead as I’ve always dealt with life’s challenges: with a strong drink in my hand. On that note, it must be time for some rum. Off to Bar Julep!

Du Barry
03-6450-8177

Tokyo Food: Potsura-Potsura, Shibuya – ぽつらぽつら、渋谷

Tucked away on a dark backstreet of Shinsen, the warm glow of light that emanates from this little restaurant has recently been attracting foodies like moths to a flame. This is due in no small part to the enviable coverage it has received in various food magazines, including a glossy four-page spread in the latest edition of Tokyo Calender’s Top 100 Restaurants.

Potsura-Potsura

Local produce-driven izakaya in Shibuya

 Any concerns that I had about this popularity resulting in arrogance or aloofness from the staff were quickly diminished the moment I cracked open the door and was met with an enthusiastic cry of “いらしゃいませ!” A warm welcome indeed.

 

As our party was a group of four we were seated at a table in a discreet alcove near the rear of the shop. However, I recommend securing one of the coveted counter seats from where you can to enjoy watching head chef, Yoneyama-san, a jovial figure dressed in full chef’s whites, and his talented brigade wield their knife skills in the open plan kitchen. Their collective backgrounds in French, Italian and washoku cuisine is reflected in a menu which melds European techniques and flavour profiles with exclusively domestic produce. Yoneyama’s food philosophy is all about celebrating the best of Japanese produce from the ocean, mountains and fields, and he is not just paying lip service to this popular trend; everyday he sources his vegetables from the farm behind his house in Azamino, Kanagawa. Buying directly from the farmer enables him to not only keep abreast with what is in season, but also ensures that he is able to bring produce of extraordinary freshness back to his kitchen each day.

This enthusiasm for domestic produce is not limited to the kitchen. Since the shop opened two years ago, the in-house sommelier, Fujimori-san, has taken it upon himself to become educated about Japan’s growing wine industry. He has travelled the country extensively to talk with winemakers, and after tasting hundreds of wine has amassed a comprehensive cellar selection. His regularly updated wine list is made up of around 60 labels with prices ranging from ¥3,000 to ¥12,000 per bottle, though most sit around the ¥4,000 mark. On his recommendation we began with the zesty Yoshi Sparkling Chardonnay from Takahata winery, in Yamagata.

An elegantly plated duo of ootoshi quickly appeared following our first toast. On the left is a smoked salmon filled choux pastry – a lovely one bite amuse, on the right, a kinoko mushroom and lotus root ‘pate’ dressed with a cheese sauce. A pleasant start to the proceedings.

As I only get to eat ankimo (monkfish liver) in the winter months, I order it at every opportunity – in case you hadn’t already noticed. Fortunately, my dining companions share my predilection for fish offal, so after inhaling this lot ankimo ponzu, we immediately treated ourselves to another round. 

Winter is a great – if not the best – time for fish in Japan, and there is no better way to enjoy the seasonal bounty from the sea than as a moriawase platter. As it was Sunday, the kitchen was carrying a limited quantity of sashimi, so we had to make do with a plate for two between the four of us. What it lacked it volume was made up for by the high quality of the fish: kanburi (winter yellowtail), chu-toro tuna, akami tuna, kinmedai (yellow-eye snapper), houbou (red gurnard), squid, shime-saba (cured mackeral), magokarei (marbled flounder), and ainame (rock trout). They were all very good, particularly the fatty shime-saba and meltingly soft chutoro which were the outstanding. 

The vibrant colours of the seasonal vegetables paid testament to their freshness, and their inherent sweetness meant that there was no need for embellishment. Simply grilled and seasoned with a smattering of salt flakes – delicious. 

                                               

A mille-feuille of yuba sashimi with brown uni (sea urchin) proved to be a hit. The subtle flavour of the yuba was a nice counterbalance to the rich intensity of the uni.

                                       

Next up, a gratin of shirako (yes, that’s cod sperm sacks folks). Creamy decadence.

                                       

As it was a girls night, it seemed only fitting that we ordered a wine produced by one of Japan’s only female winemakers. Ayana Misawa is the fourth generation of Grace, a family run winery in Yamanashi, which produces half the total volume of Japanese wine. The Grace Koshu 2009 is their benchmark wine – perfumed and light in both fragrance and palate, yet with good structure which retains its…well, gracefulness throughout. The fruit is fresh with a hint of citrus and crisp green apple, without being too sweet. Overall this wine is dry and well-balanced, and pairs nicely with the subtle flavours of Japanese cuisine. 

                                             

What do you get when you cross a Japanese chef with a pizza? A mochi flatbread topped with shirasu, ooba (a kind of perilla), and provolone cheese. Strangely good.

                                      

As well as his duties as sommelier, Fujimori-san tends to the front of house, and I must say that tthroughout the evening the service was exemplary. He was warm, attentive, and patiently answered our many questions about the menu. He was also mindful of staggering our order so that dishes were served in a timely manner, and ensured that throughout the evening our glasses were never allowed to empty. A good example of Potsura-Potsura’s customer orientated service was when our buri kama teriyaki arrived in duplicate. At first I thought I was seeing in double, but as it transpired the extra portion was simply sent out gratis from the kitchen so that it was easier for us to share.
The teriyaki glaze was savoury yet deliciously sticky, perfectly complimenting the sweet oily meat. Within minutes we had picked it down to the jawbone. 

Keen to move onto something a little more substantial, we asked Fujimoto-san for something red with a lot of character. Without missing a beat he produced the amusingly named がんこおやじ手造りのわいん (Wine Handmade By A Grumpy Old Man), a 100% organic cabernet/koshu blend from Nakamura Winery, in Osaka. Like a cantankerous Osakan oyaji, this wine had ‘character’ in spades; a herbaceous nose, with a slight hint of black sesame, and a full-bodied palate of spicy berry which receded into a dry finish. The wine would definitely benefit from some time to mellow out so that the tannins are less astringent and overwhelming for the fruit. That said, I would be interested to approach this wine again once it has a few more years under its belt.

Well into our third bottle of wine, we were in need of food with a higher level of absorbency. Thankfully, we had prepared for this eventuality by pre-ordering two claypots of rice, which take 40 minutes to bake. The ikura yakigomi gohan arrived first, and was quickly demolished – definitely the star of the night.

A second pot, this time of octopus and dried tomato, arrived in quick succession and elicited moans of approval from all assembled. 

Well sated we decided against the dessert menu, opting instead to have our sweets in liquid form, which in my case was a refreshing yuzu liquor made by sake brewer Hououbiden, in Ibaraki. It is worth noting that the drinks menu also offers a good selection of sake and shochu – something I will be keen to investigate on a return visit. 

Its quirky onomatopoeic name, Potsura-Potsura, is meant to convey the feeling of an environment where you can relax and linger… and dilly-dally we did. As there was no pressure from the staff to settle up and move on, we sat back with full tummies and rosy cheeks to enjoy our lively conversation which, despite the late hour, showed no signs abating.

Potsura-Potsura
03-5456-4512

Tokyo Izakaya: Nakamenoteppen, Naka-Meguro – なかめのてっぺん、中目黒

Monday, August 30th

My quest for food and nihon-shu in the Tokyo metropolis means that I have clocked up many hours, if not days and weeks, scouring the pages of tabelog.com for inspiration. Love it or hate it, it is a useful search tool, and while I have become wary of the arbitrary nature of the ranking system, I’ve had plenty of successful dining experiences through it, too.
So, with my list of ‘go to izakayas’ spawning lists of their own, I (foolishly) decided to devote the 10 days of my summer holiday to knocking some of the buggers off.
The first day of my holidays coincided with The Surfer’s birthday, so a booking was made at Nakamenoteppen; an izakaya which had piqued my interest after being named one of tabelog’s top restaurants for 2009 – what the criteria was is anyone’s guess.
Nakamenoteppan is conveniently housed on the first floor of an apartment building on a street parallel to the station. Gaining entrance, however, proved to be something of a skill test – of which we failed miserably. The liliputian door, barely one metre in height, had no handle or ‘bing-bong’ and was resistant to force. “How the hell do we get in?” – well, those seemed to be the magic words, as suddenly the door slid open and we were warmly greeted by a spritely waitress.

Entering the shop, there was no reprieve from the sweltering summer conditions outside; we were hit with a wall of heat, which was emanating, along with uncious smells, from the large robata grill that dominated the room.

Seated at the low wooden counter that surrounded the grill, we were afforded a pleasing view of the day’s organic vegetable fare and in-house cured himono, which were assembled on the counter top. Each offering had a hand written plague giving its name and provenance.

Although it was still early, the shop was humming and, by the look of the group of salarymen that occupied the large communal table at the far end of the room, festivities were already well underway. The source of their levity was obviously from the bar, which was stocked with an impressive array of shochu in all of its glorious forms – the house speciality. A quick look at the drinks list reveled, however, they that also had 8 sake of ginjou (or higher) grand on offer – phew!

Given the heat, lemon sours and nama beer kicked us off, along with an otooshi of Kyo-yasai tsukemono; all of which were disappeared fairly quickly.
The menu focuses on robata grilled food – natch; lots of veges, dried fish, along with grilled meat and a few Okinawan dishes for the pork lovers. Once our order was placed, the chef, who was boisterously manning the grill, dispatched it with such lightening speed that within minutes all of our dishes arrived and we were forced to colonise the our neighbours counter space.
First up, the sashimi moriawase, which arrived on a plate so long that it required two photos: tai, kinmedai, chu-toro, nama tako and shime-saba. All of good grade and cut in generous proportions. Note the personalised reservation and welcoming message in the background – I must be easily impressed because it scored points with me.


Next was the saba heshiko, which packed a salty, umami punch – not an unpleasant thing in my books. This was, however, our one mis-step of the evening – definitely a dish that should be enjoyed at the end of the meal, as the residual salt lingered on our palate for the rest of the evening.

The tsubodai himono had to wait in the wings for a while, but once we had made our way through the first few dishes, we discovered that it was the star of the show. It was deliciously caramalised on the outside and moist within; its time on the robata grill imparting a wonderful smokiness to the flesh. Divine.

By the time our grilled asparagus arrived our dishes were starting to pile up in the most cumbersome fashion. Surely the kitchen could pace the service better than this? In hindsight, we had made a rookie’s mistake; order as you go – the grill waits for no man.

Of course plenty of sake was needed to wash down all of this good, and highly seasoned, food. The Surfer choose the Dassai junmai daiginjou (獺祭純米大吟醸– always good, followed by a tokkuri of Soukou jumaishu (蒼空純米酒) from Kyoto, which was a revelation.

As it was the Surfer’s special day, we decided to throw caution to the wind and work our way through the rest of the sake list. I had recently enjoyed the Taka (畳) junmaiginjou at Kudan, so was interested to try it in its ginjou form, however, we deemed it too heavy for our palates and the fish-centric dishes we were eating. The Kudoki Jouzu Bakuren ginjou dry(くどき上手ばくれん吟醸辛口) proved to be a winner: crisp, dry and dangerously drinkable – the ‘pick-up artist’ is a perfect epithet for this charming little tipple.
As the night progressed, more and more punters managed to work out how to get through the door, and before long the shop was filled to capacity. The grill chef was now working like a man possessed and with each successive order the smoke and heat were ratcheted up a notch, which made for thirsty, and consequently, increasingly intoxicated customers – Hic!
One last round: Hayaseura junmaishu (早瀬浦純米酒) from Fukui; Okinawan mamodake and lashings of iced water. The makomodake, a type of young bamboo, was succulent and delicious with a delicate flavour not dissimilar to young corn. It paired nicely with the sake, which according to my notes, was dry and refreshing with a nice level of acidity. I, too, am slightly astounded at my articulateness given the amount of nihonshu that had been put away throughout the evening. Double hic!

 Nakamenoteppan certainly delivers good food and atmosphere, and if shochu is your poison, you will be well catered for here. As we staggered to the station, I couldn’t help thinking that if I was fortunate enough to live in a desirable neighbourhood such as Naka-Meguro, this would definitely be my local. So, when the occasion calls for something cheap and cheerful, I will be making a bee-line to Nakamenoteppan, but – mental note to self – I will dress lightly, order slowly and return in more clement weather.


Nakamenoteppan
03-5724-4439

Kyoto Food: Isoya, Kyoto – 五十家 京都

April 28th, 2010.
I was keen to balance our days of historical places and traditional culture in Kyoto, with nights at casual eateries where we could enjoy modern interpretations of Kyo-ryori. Sadly, a recently purchased copy of Ota-san’s 太田和彦の居酒屋味酒覧—精選173 wasn’t going to be of much use to me, but after hours scouring the pages of tabelog, I settled on Isoya.
Specialising in grilled Kyoto vegetables, Isoya is located north of Sanjo-dori and slightly west of Pontochō, in an area brimming with casual restaurants (as opposed to geisha teahouses), which are popular with young Kyotoites. Unusually for Japan, where al fresco dining is something of a rarity, Isoya opens out onto the street, which would make it the perfect spot to enjoy a meal during Kyoto’s sweltering summers.

We were greeted boisterously by the staff and given prime seats at the counter in front of the master of ceremonies, the grill chef. It was a good thing we arrived early for our reservation, as by 7pm the restaurant was completely full and they were turning away hungry customers by the dozen.

Along the counter top, large platters of the day’s vegetables were displayed in their raw form: lotus root, takenoko (baby bamboo shoots), new season’s asparagus and Matsutake mushrooms, were among the temptations. But, after a long day of sightseeing, the first order of the night was something sweet and hydrating. A Wakayama Umeshu (plum wine) soda was the unanimous decision. After a brief run down on the day’s special and explanation of how to order; choose a vegetable and the style you would like it cooked (fresh, grilled or oven roasted), an order of yaki sora-mame (broad beans grilled in their pod) and shiitake mushrooms was placed and just as quickly served – then devoured. At ¥500 per plate, it’s easy to see why the place is so popular.

The sake list was a fairly standard – Hakkaisan and Dassai being among the half dozen brands available . A quick survey of the room revealed that most diners were happily imbibing shochu in its various forms (vegetable-shochu cocktails being a house speciality), or mediocre wines by the bottle – poor fools. As we were in Kansai, Biwa no Choju Junmaiginjou from Shiga-ken seemed the logical choice. It’s fruity fragrance and balanced flavour stood up well against the rich offerings from the grill.

The blackboard above the grill listed a variety of protein options, from which we ordered the tuna capaccio (¥700) and grilled hokke (¥600). The tuna was served with aromatic herbs and a light drizzling of chili oil dressing, and was deemed delicious by Boo-Boo.

Having lived in Izu-Hanto for several years, I like to think that I am a bit of a connoisseur when it comes to himono (sun-dried fish). So colour me surprised when our hokke arrived, still bubbling after its short spell under the grill. Moist, unctuous and fleshy, (forgive me Shizuoka) it was by far one of the best specimen I have had the pleasure of consuming.

Our day of pavement pounding had left us ravenous and all of the dishes were quickly picked bare, so after a consultation with the chef, tomato was ordered – slow roasted in Italian marinade. Served in a pristine white ceramic bowl, the primary red orb of tomato glowed from within – creating a Hinomaru effect, if you will. The taste? Divine. Silence descended as Boo-Boo and I savoured each heavenly mouthful. Who would have thought the humble tomato could inspire a hallelujah moment.

I once had the pleasure of working with Ray McVinnie, an esteemed New Zealand chef and contributing editor of the culinary bible, Cuisine, during the halcyon days of Metropole restaurant. His mantra of “Keep it stupid”, are words which have informed my philosophy towards food. Isoya appears to have the same approach; seasonal, simply prepared fare, which allows you to enjoy the integrity of the ingredients. So simple, yet so satisfying.
As we left the restaurant, all the seats were full with a young, creative type crowd, even though it still early on a Wednesday evening. It seems that others have cottoned on to the notion that keeping it simple is not so stupid.

Isoya
075-212-5039